Long before orthodox medicine took center stage in the health care practices around the world people who were sick used to visit different kind of doctors. These doctors were not the steth-wielding, tech-savvy, white-coated medical geniuses of today. Mostly, they were bearded, wizened and gnarled humans looking less like physicians and more like witches or wizards. But they were revered, loved and even feared because of one particular skill they possessed – the healing touch.
In the early days of civilization, a vast majority of people were cut off from ‘formal’ medical care. Competent physicians were a luxury, to be enjoyed only by the super-rich and royalty. For everyone else, there was the local witch-doctor who was respected for his or her in-depth knowledge of folk medicine. This was the man or woman who treated everything from boils to gangrene, from cesarean to malaria and even small pox.
What is astonishing is that many of these so-called ‘doctors’ effectively cured their patients. What is even more interesting is that these medicines have lost none of their charms with the passage of time and more and more of them are finding their rightful place in mainstream medicines.
Remember how your grandma used to give you wild cherry bark for cough, or boil the twigs and leaves of red cedar to cure your cold? Well, that’s folk medicine! If you were to ask your grandma how she learnt those techniques, she’d draw a blank! These unofficial health-related practices were passed on informally by word of mouth and were developed through observation and experimentation.
Illnesses ranging from the common cold and sore throat to warts, cancer, malaria, impotence and arthritis are said to be treated through folk medicine.
Folk medicine largely depended on the use of natural materials such as herbs, plant roots, trees, barks, fruits, insects and food items. Therefore, these practitioners paid a lot of attention to botany.
But the advent of modern medicine saw a decline in folk medicine as these ‘rustic’ practices were put under the microscope, dissected and then discarded as worthless. One more reason contributed to the decline of folk medicine.
Folk medicine started its downward slide with the advent of magical healing powers. Seedy people on the lookout for a few fast bucks were successful in capitalizing on the trust and faith of large sections of the society. Once their ruse came to light, people began to lose faith in folk medicine. Soon folk medicine was relegated to a gray area between orthodox medicine and quackery.
However, as more and more people have started to realize, there is a wealth of knowledge in traditional folk medicine. As people have started adopting the holistic way of life, there is a struggle to re-invent the precious folk medicine of yore. In recent years, the folk medicine of indigenous people is becoming more popular.
Some examples of folk medicines that we use in our daily life are:
Garlic – to reduce blood cholesterol levels
Chinese acupuncture – to treat blood clotting and migraine
The juice of neem leaves – to treat malaria
Poultice – to treat infected wounds
Turmeric – to treat bee or wasp stings
Today, amazingly more than two-thirds of the world’s population rely on the healing powers of folk medicine at some point of their lives. For many nothing else is available or affordable. For some, nothing else is acceptable. And for a very few, nothing else works.